In 1986, screenwriter Gregory Widen hit on a novel idea about immortal men and women battling throughout the centuries in pursuit of a mysterious prize that could forever tip the balance of power for mankind towards light or dark. That movie was called Highlander, directed by Russell Mulcahy, with French actor Christopher Lambert in the lead role.
Though a relatively underground sleeper hit, Highlander made a bit impact on both male and female fans, blending elements of fantasy, sci-fi and romance to weave a unique tale of love, loss, struggle and victory. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t stay that way, and the Highlander franchise would quickly lose track of its own trajectory, confusing audiences in the process.
Each installment of the Highlander series has managed to step on a rake, and that has messed up the official chronology even worse than the X-Men film franchise. At this point, Highlander is finished in its current form, sparking news of a reboot starring Henry Caville, but how exactly did it get this way? It’s all thanks to the malfeasance of those who made the sequels.
1) HIGHLANDER II: THE QUICKENING (1991)
Immediately after solidifying itself as a cult classic, the Highlander franchise went off the highway and straight into a ravine. Highlander II was touted as a smashing follow-up to the seminal original, but it was a disaster from the very first scene. The movie traded the sweeping and epic historical narrative for a science fiction tale that screwed up the entire formula.
The film brought back actors Christopher Lambert and the late Sean Connery in their original roles as Connor MacLeod and Ramirez, this time in a decayed and dystopian future with a plot arc surrounding corporate greed and ecological collapse. An aged Connor MacLeod is ready to kick the bucket after centuries as an immortal, but fate has other plans.
He’s soon thrust back into the game by a paranoid warlord from his own past who has come to Earth to finish him off once and for all. Their battle spills over into a fight between eco-terrorists and a corporation intent on controlling the populace, with the fate of humanity dangling in the process.
WHAT IT DID WRONG
No longer were the immortals random humans gifted/cursed with their inability to die and chop off heads. Instead, it was revealed that they were actually aliens from a planet called Zeist who were exiled to Earth to participate in the game. This single act destroyed all mystery and fascination audiences held for the immortals, and damned the film to the manure pit.
Worse, the theatrical cut of Highlander II was an abject disaster with scenes edited in incorrect order, creating a narrative mess that made no sense, and prevented audiences from latching on. When the dust had settled, it seemed like all the good of the first film was undone by a train wreck that was hell-bent on going the opposite direction.
Years later, Highlander II would be revived with an aptly named “Renegade Edition,” which sought to undo much of the damage of the original cut. Scenes were digitally altered to be more palatable to audiences, the entire chronology was restructured so that scene progression actually made sense, and new material was inserted to create a lengthier and more engaging cut.
It worked, and has since become the standard for audiences still traumatized by the theatrical cut. In that regard, Highlander II managed to redeem itself – at least in part – but the damage was already done by that point, and has since been de-canonized as an alternate story in a parallel setting. Thank Kurgan for that.
2) HIGHLANDER III: THE FINAL DIMENSION (1995)
A year after Highlander II flatlined at the box office, a television series based on the first film was released starring Adrian Paul as fellow clansman and immortal Duncan MacLeod. It went on to become a pop culture hit, and may have been the impetus for 1995’s third Highlander feature film, also known as The Sorcerer.
Christopher Lambert returned as Connor once again, this time with an alternate narrative that contradicted Highlander II entirely, and went in another direction. The antagonist of the film was Kane, played by an overacting Mario Van Peebles, who possessed the powers of a sorcerer that extended his natural abilities.
The film followed the feel of the TV show to a large degree, while sprinkling in elements from the first film. It also expanded on a few of the Highlander mythos, including what happens when immortals break the sacred rule never to fight on holy ground. It was a slightly bizarre, yet acceptable take on the existing formula.
WHAT IT DID WRONG
If Highlander III is guilty of anything, it’s clichés. The idea of adding mystical powers to the immortals is a novel one, but it feels like it oversteps its own narrative boundaries. Both Lambert and Peebles have natural chemistry as hero and villain, but the latter tries too hard to emulate Clancy Brown’s Kurgan from the first film, making it feel like a retread of what came before.
It also feels slightly exploitative in terms of what it wishes to accomplish, yet never manages to deliver on the promise. That’s due in large part to obscure director Andy Morahan, whose film career didn’t last very long before he was relegated to going back to shooting music videos for pop musicians.
Morahan was clearly a Highlander fan, but he tries to emulate too many scenes from the first film, turning it into something of a caricature of itself. This is evident during the scene when Kane kidnaps Connor’s young son and drives erratically through traffic, which is a direct copy of the hilarious third act scene from Highlander.
While the film does score points for directly referencing plot arcs from the first Highlander film, it was released at a time when the TV show was struggling to reconcile that movie’s rather definitive ending. That caused more confusion already exacerbated by a bizarre and chronologically incoherent Highlander II.
3) HIGHLANDER: ENDGAME (2000)
Besides the first installment in the franchise, Endgame is the second-best film in its history, even though it battles its way through a mess of contradictions and plot holes to get there. It was a Highlander super-fan’s dream come true – Connor and Duncan MacLeod sharing the same big screen for the first time since the former’s cameo in the pilot episode of the TV series.
And it worked. Highlander: Endgame took elements from the first film and the TV show, and threw everything else into the garbage can. Highlander II and III were ignored in favor of a continuation of the TV show’s timeline, which was the wisest direction it could have gone.
The story revolves around a remorseful and fatalistic Connor MacLeod coming to grips with the death of his dear friend and confidante Rachel, once again played by Sheila Gish. The culprit is an immortal from Connor’s own past who is playing the long game when it comes to revenge, and he has eternity to spare.
Duncan gets dragged into the fray when he investigates Connor’s seeming demise, but all is not what it seems. Their mutual enemy Jacob Kell is on the prowl with several immortals at his side, including Duncan’s former wife Kate, who despises him for killing her and making her immortal so they could live together forever.
The final act sets the stage for an emotional passing of the torch between two centuries-old friends, and a battle against history’s most lethal and dangerous immortal.
WHAT IT DID WRONG
Endgame’s heart was in the right place, so it can’t be faulted for doing anything truly reckless or irresponsible. It’s shot very well, the characters are interesting enough, and the drawn-out dynamic between the two protagonists and Jacob Kell was a fascinating and twisted triangle that felt authentic and genuine.
It even saw fit to bring back Heather, played by Beatie Edney from the original film, which was such a monumental gift to the fans. Yet, it blew a lot of key chances to make the film a lot more epic. Any film that wastes Donnie Yen on just one single fight scene, then has his character check out so unglamorously deserves a knock.
Bruce Payne also overacted his role as Jacob Kell to such a degree that even William Shatner would feel embarrassed. The character is interesting enough, but Payne spends so much of his time looking silly whilst trying to be menacing that he ends up making a parody of himself.
And of course, the fight scenes are problematic thanks to incoherent bad cuts that look disjointed and out of sequence. The final fight between Duncan and Kell even replays an entire piece of fight choreography in exact sequence, a second time, which looks bizarre and distracting. It’s impossible not to notice, and I’m surprised a successor cut hasn’t fixed the issue.
Endgame deserves a lot of credit, but it couldn’t escape the Highlander franchise’s already convoluted timeline.
4) HIGHLANDER: THE SOURCE (2007)
Perhaps sensing that the curtain was about to fall on the Highlander franchise, the higher-ups decided to throw caution and common sense to the wind in order to shoot the travesty that is Highlander: The Source. It’s The Last Jedi of the series, and one of the most silly, counterproductive films ever to smear a camera lens.
The story picks up after the events of Endgame where Duncan MacLeod and his friends operate inside a world that has largely fallen apart. Lawlessness is everywhere, hinting at the kind of future glimpsed in Highlander II. Whether that was intentional or not, remains a mystery.
A group of immortals led by Duncan’s old friend Mythos believe they have pinpointed the fabled “source” of immortality upon which their mysterious nature originated. In so doing, it undoes the main linchpin of the entire Highlander series by purposely changing the source material at the eleventh hour, after more than 20 years of established content.
WHAT IT DID WRONG
It’s practically impossible to find a single positive thing to say about The Source, which is a testament to how bad it truly is. Director Brett Leonard got out way past his skis on this one, and the entire film suffers for it. Set designs are bleak and uninspired, many of the characters are downright weird, and the action sequences look cheesy and laughable.
It also ruins its main antagonist, the Guardian, played by Cristian Solimeno. What should have been a terrifying and bone-chilling villain is more akin to the ‘roid-infused frat boy who gets piss drunk and then beats up his Uber driver on the way home from the club.
Points should be given for bringing back Methos and Dawson from the TV show, but they’re wasted on a script that tries to be too many things at once. Highlander is a straightforward premise, but here the immortals are engaging in James Bond MI6-style investigations while battling cannibals and dodging a knockoff slasher villain.
One can see the pain in Adrian Paul’s eyes as he’s forced to commit to contractual obligations in order to escape Dante’s undiscovered 10th Circle of Hell. The Source wasn’t a definitive wrap-up to the Highlander franchise. Rather, it looked at the theatrical cut of Highlander II, said “hold my beer,” then proceeded to mutilate fan expectations with a thousand razor-sharp cuts.
Highlander continues to be looked on with favorability, but every fan acknowledges the mess behind the magic. It’s a shame, because the unique and imaginative premise had real potential to go the distance beyond just an iconic first film and an excellent TV series.
If the franchise is to be rebooted, it’s an opportunity to wipe the slate clean and capitalize on all the great elements that made the original so good, while modernizing it with better cinematography, visual effects, and perhaps an expanded look into immortal lore and history.
Unfortunately, creative bankruptcy permeates the film industry in this current age, which means any adaptation of Highlander is bound to lose its head in short order. Perhaps one day the series will be rebooted and stay true to its romanticized time-traveling adventure roots. Until then, there can be only one, and that’s the original 1986 Highlander film.